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Pole Pole All the Way to the Top

Pole Pole All the Way to the Top
by Paul McLellan on 09-13-2014 at 6:25 pm

 We made it! I have stood on the highest point in Africa, Uhuru Peak of Kilimanjaro.

Obviously this blog entry is totally off-topic. If you want to read about semiconductors and stuff, you can skip it.

So how do you get to the top of a nearly 20,000’ mountain? Slowly.

Slowly on two different levels. The first level is giving your body time to acclimatize to the altitude. And the second is to go so slowly that you minimize the demand for oxygen as you ascend.

We took 5 days to acclimatize. Each day we would go higher to a new camp. But more importantly, we would be higher still during the day and then come back down again, or take an acclimatization hike out of the camp to a high point nearby. “Climb high, sleep low.” With weight training, it is the rest days when your body rebuilds your muscles stronger. In the same way, it is at low level that your body adjusts to the altitude stress you just endured.

 The second slow is going up the mountain. “pole, pole” the guides say the whole time. “Pole” is the Swahili for slow (pronounced like “pawley”). You move your feet very small steps, not very fast, but you are still making progress. On a steep slope the speed might be only be half-a-mile per hour but by going so slowly you are not demanding more than your body can deliver with the limited oxygen and you don’t find yourself panting with your heart racing, which happens if you try and go too fast.

From our base camp at about 15,000’ we went for the summit leaving at 11.30pm in the dark. It was a full-moon so head-lamps were barely needed. The first part is not too hard since your body is already used to heights like that. Plus you are walking on sooth gravel underfoot, so it is easy to set up a rhythm and stick to it. The last 500m (1/4 mile) to the crater rim (Gilman’s Point) are really tough. You are already up at about 18,000’ and you can’t really go “pole, pole” since you are clambering over big rocks and stepping up, your body is telling you to stop, you are short of breath needing to stop and rest every minute or so. Eventually you make it to Gilman’s point, which is on the crater rim (Kilimanjaro is a volcano, or a volcono as the spelling error on the carved sign on the summit has it). You want to rest but it is sub-zero centigrade, maybe 10F. The water bottles are a mixture of ice and water, the camelback hoses have frozen up. It is comparatively flat to go around the rim to the real summit, just a few hundred feet of ascent, but it is still about an hour and a half to get there. “pole, pole”.

 In reality, the last part around the crater is a 3 hour round trip for a photo in front of the sign on the summit. But what a photo. As the sun comes up it starts to get warmer. There were even some people doing the ice-bucket challenge, which was pretty insane given the air temperature. Then it is down again. Lunch. Then an 8 mile hike to the next camp further down towards the entrance. That day is about 15 miles of hiking over about 18 hours with one meal.

 Our group consisted of 7 people, the four of us, another Paul from Singapore, Dipankar from Calgary, and Eric from New Mexico. Eric was black and he asked our lead guide Harold, who has been a guide there for 22 years, how many black guests he had taken up. “One” he said. “One before me,” Eric replied. “No, you are it.” All the guides and porters are black Tanzanians but I still find it amazing that he was the first black client in over two decades. “Black guys don’t ski” is a cliché, but apparently they don’t do Kilimanjaro either.

This was the first trip I have done with porters carrying gear. Our party was 28 people. The 7 of us. Harold, the lead guide. Nelson and Emmanuel the other guides. And 18 other people, mostly porters but also a chef and a cook. We ate our meals in a big tent sitting in canvas chairs with a table covered with a cloth. It felt a little bit Hemingway colonial, back in the era when a safari meant shooting animals with guns not cameras. The porters carried everything we didn’t need to keep in our day-packs: tents, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, extra clothes, all the other stuff apart from waterproofs (it can rain at any time), something warm, sunscreen etc. Plus all the food, the mess tent, propane, stoves and who knows what.

 So if you’re thinking of doing Kilimanjaro what would be my advice?

  • You really can do Kili with no technical mountaineering experience. It is a walk. But it is the toughest walk I have ever done, especially the last hour to the crater rim. Don’t underestimate it, even if you are fit. Being fit at sea-level will help, not being overweight will help, having hiked some high mountains before will help. But unless you have experienced that sort of altitude before you don’t know how your body will take it. Martina Navratilova didn’t make it and I did. She got altitude sickness badly and I didn’t. Even in retirement I’m sure she is way fitter than I am. You can’t take it for granted but the best way to improve the odds is to give your body time to acclimatize and don’t try and rush it. But 30-40,000 people a year attempt it and about half make it.
  • Find a good guide company. We went with Team Kilimanjaro, who are headquartered in Britain and I have nothing but praise for them (their boss has done Kilimanjaro up and back in 18 hours, which is close to the record). The cheapest you are legally allowed to do is to go with one guide and one porter but you will have a better experience if you don’t try and pretend you are still a 20-year old student.
  • If the trip is short, consider making them add an extra day. It will add a couple of hundred dollars to your bill but as a percentage of what you are already spending it is minimal. The rule of thumb apparently is that on 3-day tours 30% of people make it, 4-day tours 40% up to 7-day tours at 70% success. All seven of us made it, and our ages ranged from 49 to 72. Not young bucks.
  • You need good clothing for the final ascent. You need 3 good layers for the ascent. A good base layer, pants, and windproof pants. On top, a good base layer, a shirt, a fleece and a down/synthetic jacket with a hood. Thick mittens. Your guide company can probably rent you the stuff you don’t have.
  • If you have a porter carrying the stuff you don’t need in your day-pack, bring a few extra things like a pair of sandals (so you can take your boots off), a couple of books or a kindle. Maybe even some single malt scotch (we were dry all week since none of us had thought of that).
  • Bring some old T-shirts, hats and that sort of thing. It is traditional to give away clothing to the porters and while a 6-year old Disneyland T-shirt might not be that interesting to you, they will love it.
  • It is malaria country, although it is rare compared to down near Dar-es-Salaam and the coast. Take anti-malarial drugs. Typically you start 2 days before you get there, and continue for at least a week after you get back home. You also need other stuff like Hepatitis A/B, typhoid, tetanus if you don’t already have them. If you live in the bay area, I recommend the immunization clinic on Grove Street in the city. They really know everything and they do nothing all day but deal with people going to unusual countries. Your own doctor knows a lot less. They can give you everything on the spot, your own doctor will probably need to order stuff in and charge you more.
  • It is also safari country, with several national parks within a couple of hours drive. Having gone all the way to Africa it is great to see some giraffes, lions, zebra, elephants, water-buffalo, monkeys and more in the wild.

Bottom line: it is a wonderful experience but don’t underestimate it.

More articles by Paul McLellan…

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